We have a very strong tendency to throw around certain Bible passages when we feel they suit our needs. First and foremost of these in dialogue about Catholic Social Teaching and the proper role of government in aiding the needy is Matthew 26:11, in which Jesus states: “The poor you will always have with you.” (NAB)
The most unfortunate tendency in using this quote is to justify doing very little to help the poor. In arguments, it is used to excoriate any governmental welfare program, noting that since the poor will always be with us, the governmental efforts will not succeed, and therefore that justifies doing nothing at all. We all know, of course, that Jesus never meant this statement to be an acknowledgement of futility, or an advocation of doing nothing. But certainly the context of the quote seems telling.
We have three versions of the story from Matthew (26:6-13), Mark (14:3-9), and John (12:1-8). While Jesus and his apostles are in Bethany, shortly before the Passion and the crucifixion, and while they are staying in the house of Simon the Leper, a woman comes in with an expensive perfumed oil and anoints Jesus with it. (John names the woman as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.) The apostles—Judas especially, though for different reasons than the others—become indignant, and to anyone who has followed the story thus far, rightly so.
Keep in mind that as Jesus and his apostles traveled the countryside, preaching the good news and the coming of the Kingdom, the apostles continually heard from their master the virtues of poverty, and the excoriation of wealth. In the Beatitudes, we have “Blessed are the poor (in spirit), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3, cf Lk 6:20) Jesus tells us such things as, “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroys, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, whether neither moth nor decay destroy, nor thieves break in and steal.” (Mt 7:19-20) He asks his disciples to leave all they have to follow him. One specific time, when a rich man asks him what more is needed to gain eternal life, Jesus replies (If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Mt 19:21) As the rich man goes away, dejected, Jesus tells his apostles (to their mutual dismay): “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I say to you, it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:23-24) Time and again we see Jesus admonishing the rich and extolling the virtues of the poor. The message seems pretty clear, right? Rich bad, poor good. If you have anything superfluous to every day necessities, it should go to the poor.
So here we have an example where the students attempt to imitate their master. They call down Mary for wasting such a valuable resource, stating that the oil could have been sold for a great price, and the money given to the poor. Judas (a thief who dipped into the party’s funds for his own benefit) particularly knew just how much money could have been procured and given away to the needy (himself included, of course), and we can imagine that a number of poor people could have filled their bellies for days, if not weeks. Think of how one of our valuables could be sold today, and how long that would feed some poor people. For example, if I sold my car (my wife has a vehicle of her own, and we don’t really need two right now) for a couple of thousand dollars, I could feed several poor families for over a month.
And yet, against all expectation, Jesus stuns them yet again. He admonishes them, telling them that Mary has done a good thing for him (especially in preparation for his death on the cross and burial). And then, confounding them altogether, he quotes from Deuteronomy (15:11): “The poor you will always have with you,” adding: “but you will not always have me.” (Mt 26:11)
So how are we to understand this sudden change of pace? We could interpret this very narrowly. In general, it is best to sell your possessions and give to the poor, but in this one instance, because it is for Jesus, and with a particular significance—i.e. the anointing of the body before burial—it is acceptable. Or we could interpret this less narrowly, in that riches and luxuries, when given to God for such purposes as display in churches, are all right to have around and need not be sold off. Wider than that is to suppose that having a few luxuries around, even those not dedicated to God, are all right, because the greater problem will not be overcome simply by throwing money at the problem. In fact, because the poor will always be around, no matter how hard we work, we don’t have to bankrupt ourselves providing for them.
Probably the most consistent message throughout the gospels concerning poverty is not that being poor is good and being rich is bad, but that attachment to material possessions impedes the way to heaven. Loving our toys too much could end up placing those toys between ourselves and God. A poor person has an advantage over a rich person because he has fewer possessions to hold on to. But that does not mean that a poor person necessarily is any more virtuous just by being poor, nor that a rich man must be vile.
In this light, Jesus possibly rebukes his disciples because of their overzealousness in the matter of giving to the poor. While giving to the poor is good, forcing someone else to give what they do not desire to give is hardly justified. Also, even though there are poor people out there, that does not prevent one from making material gifts to people who aren’t poor (especially if that person is God).
Still, there is no escaping the feeling that Jesus is twisting the meaning of the passage in Deuteronomy, which clearly states that, since the land will never be lacking in poor people, we must always be willing to give. At the very least, Jesus seems to be adding some exception clauses.
Yet that isn’t really the case. Jesus, as he always does, adds higher dimension to what the apostles already knew. There is an obligation to help the poor, but that is derived from—and in no way superior to—our obligations to God. The duty of tending to the poor is not supposed to be all consuming that we lose sight of God, or the reasons we are to help the poor.
Where does this leave us, then? The argument that the poor will always be with us is not justification at all for refraining from giving to the poor. Any arguments about whether to give really hold no weight. We are obligated to give. What we can argue is how we are to give and how much we are to give.
As a note, the poor we are obligated to help need not be materially poor. There are among us those who are spiritually, or emotionally, or culturally poor, and we have an obligation to tend to them, as well.
So whenever we find ourselves arguing politics and debating economics, we need to be careful about how we wield quotes like “The poor you will always have with you.” The temptation is to use this quote to justify being overly blasé about the plight of the poor, and it was never meant to support such a viewpoint. Instead, it is meant to remind us that our work will never be done, that we must indeed always be prepared to give to those in need. The only caution is not to lose sight of why we bear this obligation. Our duty first and foremost is to love and serve our God. Love of God then extends to love of God’s creation, and especially our fellow man. Our obligation to serve the poor is not really geared towards ending poverty forever; instead, it is a natural manifestation of our love for our neighbors and the communion we are meant to build with them. We are to give to the poor, not necessarily because it will lift them out of poverty (though we certainly carry that hope), but primarily because we love them and wish to ease their suffering and bring them, in turn, closer to God.